Season Recap and a Look at 2024: Freedom Division
With only three games remaining for the trio of Shore Conference teams competing for Group titles next week, now is a good time to look back at how the season went for all 42 Shore teams and take an early look at next year.
Obviously, in the age of rampant transferring, the phrase "will return" is not an ironclad statement, but for these purposes we will work under the assumption that underclassmen will be back with their teams next fall.
Here's how it went this season for the Freedom Division, where Marlboro had one of its best seasons ever, a star was born for Jackson Memorial, and three other teams made the state playoffs.
One looming question is whether Marlboro or Jackson Memorial will be realigned into the rugged American Division.
The Mustangs were one of the stories of the Shore as they turned in their best season in 29 years behind Shore Conference Coach of the Year candidate Jason Dagato. They won a share of the Freedom Division title for their first division title since 1994, and then they advanced to their first NJSIAA sectional final since that same season. They took Cherokee to overtime and came up just short of their first state title since that ’94 season and just the second in program history. This also marked the first time in school history that Marlboro had three straight winning seasons.
Senior RB/LB Matt Cassidy turned in another All-Shore season of a 1,000-plus yards rushing and 100-plus tackles, and he is part of a standout senior class that has been a core group of the historic run for the Mustangs. Senior edge rusher Mike Consolazio also had a huge year with 14 sacks and 25 tackles for a loss, and linebacker Anthony Tropeano had 78 tackles and 9 TFLs of his own. They also lose one of the Shore’s top kickers in Luke Rubin.
Next season will be the ultimate test of Marlboro’s program depth to keep the wins coming. Junior Luke Houston will be back in the secondary after grabbing seven interceptions this season, and he also had 18 catches on offense. While Cassidy was the franchise in the backfield, Christian LaFonte had 47 carries and dual threat quarterback Zach Caporale saw time when senior starter Brayden Klein was out injured. Caporale also had 53 tackles as a safety, and junior Viacheslav Kostenko returns up front after recording 4.5 sacks. The main question is whether the offense can be productive enough to compensate for the defense (11.3 ppg) graduating some of the Shore’s top players.
Jackson Memorial (7-2)
The Jaguars grabbed a share of their second straight division title, but the season ended in some frustration with a 13-0 loss at home to Long Branch in the first round of the Central Jersey Group 4 playoffs. They finished with wins over four playoff teams during the regular season.
While they graduate a strong senior class that includes WR/DB Jaiden Hernandez, WR/DB Albert D’Allesandro, RB/LB Brandon Bigelow, LB Ethan Kalinauskas and sack machine Shaun Hubbard, they do return one very important building block. Tailback Jonah Glenn burst onto the scene as a sophomore with 1,449 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns and immediately became the centerpiece of the offense.
The defense, which only allowed 9.3 points per game, will be hit hard by graduation, but does return linebacker Jacob Zapata, defensive end Matthew Howard and others. Offensively, the Long Branch loss made it clear they need some more balance so teams can’t swarm Glenn. They return quarterback Dennis Caswell after he threw for 720 yards as a junior, but graduate their top two receivers.
Middletown North (6-5)
The Lions turned in their first winning season in seven years. They started off 2-3 but played their best football down the stretch by winning three straight to lock up a playoff berth before falling to Irvington in the first round and then Middletown South on Thanksgiving.
They dealt with some players in and out of the lineup, but senior quarterback Luke Sheehan made it work by throwing for 1,997 yards and 18 touchdowns with only three interceptions while also running for 318 yards. Their offense will take a big hit from graduation, as they lose Sheehan, leading rusher Neno Morgan-Acker, and top wideout Dylan Briggs, who had 845 yards receiving. They also graduate standout linebacker Justin Soto on defense.
Running back Shane Volante (388 yards) will be the most experienced returner on offense, but the good news is that much of the starting offensive line returns. Safeties Brian O’Donnell and Joe Grasso will be back to lead the defense, but the Lions will count on a lot of new faces to step up next year to have their first back-to-back winning seasons since 2015-16.
A few more points their way and it’s a whole different season for the Rebels. They lost their first four games by 10 points or less, but still rallied to make the state playoffs before falling 14-0 to Hillsborough.
They alternated quarterbacks between Vin Meehan and Egan Nelms, and Meehan returns next year after rushing for 387 yards when he was moved to running back. A season-ending injury to senior Brandon Wright allowed for junior Juan DeJesus to get more time and he responded with 505 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. They graduate a top wideout in Kevin Maloney, who had 32 more catches than anyone else on the team, but do return wide receiver Zach Padilla.
While offensively they will lose some playmakers, their secondary should be a strength of the defense with Meehan, Padilla, DeJesus, and Quincy Shaw all coming back. They will need to find a way to win the close ones next year and produce more offense against top teams to take a step forward, but the ingredients are there.
The Lions generally flew under the radar in 2023 but did boast a win over a playoff team with a victory over Southern. Their offense struggled at 14.2 points per game, but they have a potential future standout in running back Joe Davis, who ran for 351 yards and 4 touchdowns as a freshman. The Lions usually thrive when they have a workhorse tailback, and Davis could be that player.
Senior wideout Trevor Santucci quietly had a huge year with 48 catches for 725 yards and 8 touchdowns, so his graduation leads a big void in that area. They also graduate quarterback Nick Maertens but do return multiple starters on the offensive line.
The defense should be the strength of the team in the early going next year, as most of the secondary returns, Jim Mott is back on the defensive line and leading tackler Corey Smith will be back at linebacker. Head coach Lou Vircillo just finished his 43rd season as the only coach in program history, so there’s the perennial offseason question of whether he decides to retire from his Hall of Fame career.
The Rams faced a tough schedule and reached the state playoffs before running into the Toms River North machine for the second time in the season. In addition to facing the Mariners twice, plus division co-champs Marlboro and Jackson Memorial, they also played Central Jersey Group 4 finalist Long Branch and a pair of playoff teams in Howell and Middletown North. Their best win was a 28-12 victory over Middletown North, but they ended the season on a five-game losing streak and averaged 10.9 points per game after averaging 10.4 a year earlier.
They do return running backs in DJ Halm and Justin Silva, plus quarterback Cooper Dempsey, receiver Cole Cramer and experience up front. Defensively, they will miss senior playmaker Armando Sanchez on the defensive line but return experience at linebacker and in the secondary. In order to get over the hump for their first winning season since 2020 they will need to take a step forward on offense. Also, much like Vircillo, there's the annual decision by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Donohue Sr. about whether he will come back for another year after 50 seasons as a head coach.